Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Adventures with editing

Note: A version of this appeared on the editorial page of the Valley City Times-Record

Writers are supposed to hate editors – almost as much as publishers.

“Don't you dare touch a word of my deathless prose!” goes the writers' battle cry.

“You can't take that out, it's the whole story!” is the anguished howl.

“Why don't you just sign your own name to it? It's not mine anymore!” is the age-old question.

Well, call me a traitor to my profession, but I get along pretty well with editors. A good editor is a pearl beyond price for a couple of reasons.

One is that a writer simply cannot proof his or her own work, unless you put it aside and wait long enough until you've forgotten what was going on in your head when you wrote it. That works OK, but if you're on deadline...

Your eye sees what you meant to write, not always what you wrote. Same reason athletes need coaches.

Another reason is, if you're too close to your work, especially if you're writing something long, you know how everything is supposed to hang together - but your reader may not. The reader is not inside your head, and your editor is your first reader.

I have a friend who's a professional manuscript copy editor. Once he was given a mystery novel to proof, and wrote to tell the author the whole book was pointing to one character being the guilty party, when the ending had another as the culprit. The author wrote back to thank him, and rewrote the ending.

I learned from one of the best-selling authors of the 20th century not to be a prima donna about my work. In an essay on writing, Robert Heinlein, who set a record for an advance on a book that hadn't been written yet, advised would-be writers to think of themselves as competing against a six-pack.

A paperback book costs about as much as a six-pack of beer. The writer has to convince a customer in a convenience store that book will bring him or her more enjoyment than the six-pack would. It's a humbling realization.

However, I have had my beefs with editors, as every writer has.

When I was freelancing in Warsaw, I attended a 10-day training camp on the Baltic coast, held by the International Police Defense Tactics Association, a law-enforcement training organization based in Sweden.

It was grueling. We practiced restraint and control techniques, exercised to exhaustion, and experimented with the effects of Involuntary Body Response, or IBR.

That simply means how you hurt, flinch, and lose control of your bodily functions when you're whacked hard in strategic areas of the body. Which they demonstrated to us, and on us.

So I wrote the article and submitted it to the Warsaw Insider, a local English-language monthly.

The editor, for reasons best known to himself, wrote an article of his own and put my name on it. As in, he wrote an article from my information, he didn't even paraphrase me.

That was OK, I still got paid and I was able to give my article to the IPDTA for their own use.

Another editor of a prominent libertarian publication I dealt with, cut an article I wrote about my experiences in Serbia, to make room for other articles on the same subject by writers who'd never been there!

He also cut it in such a way as to make it seem I was supporting his editorial line - which I was not. I still don't know if this was on purpose, or just rotten editing.

I try not to be petty about small changes, but there was once that really got me.

I wrote an article for the Airport Magazine about the ubiquitous memorial plaques that are all around Warsaw. Most of them are a common form, fill-in-the-blanks plaque, informing passers-by that an execution of hostages took place on the spot during the Second World War. Forty-four people were shot under my apartment window in 1944 for example. They average about one every three blocks in the center of the city.

As you might imagine, this was a pretty depressing article to write and desperately needed an upbeat ending.

So I wrote about “Winnie the Pooh Street” in Warsaw, with its carved plaque, on which “you can see the Bear of very little brain and his pal Piglet, walking hand-in-hand as long as Warsaw endures.

It's sentimental swill, but it's good sentimental swill.

So my Austrian editor changed it to “the simple bear.”

“You can't do that! Pooh is the Bear-of-very-little-brain!”
“What's the difference? Who cares?”

“Anyone who loves Winnie the Pooh,that's who!”

I'm still mad about that one.

But most of the editors I've dealt with have been very considerate, and consulted me about suggested changes. Like a magazine editor I dealt with a while back.

We discussed changes in my article and afterwards I e-mailed him to thank him for his consideration.

He reponded that he was a writer too, and his philosophy was to edit as he'd like to be edited.

I responded that it seemed like a curiously archaic philosophy, which I wish others would follow, “But alas, we cannot have archaic and edit too.”

Then I sat at the computer and waited for the “GROAN!”


  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    My publishing history amounts to a letter to the editor that I wrote to National Review. It was in response to an article about Bush attempting to reign in spending. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read it, given Bush's propensity for allying with the liberals and spending us into oblivion. So, I sent a letter via email that was well within the length guidelines and seemed to match the style of most of their letters. To my surprise, two weeks later, there it was in the letters to the editor section. But the only part of my letter that they did not change was my name and the city that I was living in. I have no idea why they chose to print it, given that they changed every word of it. But at least they spelled my name correctly.

  • At 9:04 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    National Review? That's unconscionable. Is it possible they mixed up your name with somebody else's letter?

    Nah, doesn't seem likely.


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